It may have been lost in the epic hubbub that followed Megyn Kelly’s questioning of Donald Trump.
But former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also stirred controversy at Thursday’s Republican candidates’ debate, albeit more quietly, when he told Fox News’s 24 million viewers that the military did not need to adopt society’s changing acceptance toward transgender people.
The military, Huckabee said at the Cleveland debate, “is not a social experiment.”
“The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things,” Huckabee added. “It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America. I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines makes our country safer.”
Former U.S. Navy SEAL and House congressional candidate Kristin Beck, formerly Christopher Beck, sent a tweet in outrage to Huckabee: “I was the best of the best…I am twice the man that you could ever be!”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Beck said, “The biggest thing is, Mike Huckabee is running to be the president of the United States, and if you’re going to represent the country, you need to represent everyone.
“Right now he’s being derogatory and disrespectful to a huge part of the nation—with the amount of transgender people in America who have wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. People who understand who we are. [Our population] could go as high as 20 to 25 million people…[These are] people he should be serving, and he doesn’t care about us.”
Beck, who rose to prominence for speaking out about transgender issues and was the subject of CNN’s 2014 documentary Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story, is a 20-year veteran of the special operations community and recipient of the Bronze Star with valor device and Purple Heart.
She is running against Maryland incumbent Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
The comments from the former Arkansas governor also spurred criticism from LGBTQIA advocacy groups the Human Rights Campaign and SPARTA, a transgender military service group that advises policymakers within the Defense Department.
Brynn Tannehill, who is the director of advocacy at SPARTA, told The Daily Beast, “Taking care of our troops, transgender or otherwise, only makes our military stronger…since Governor Huckabee has never served, he should leave these decisions to the experts at the Pentagon.”
Huckabee’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
An estimated 15,500 transgender personnel serve in the U.S. armed forces, according to a policy study published in 2014 by the Palm Center.
Huckabee’s viewpoints at the GOP debate are in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s strategy to fully integrate transgender service members.
In July, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “We have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines—real, patriotic Americans—who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of service and individual merit,” according to a statement from the Defense Department.
“He’s taking his religion and his personal beliefs and disenfranchising a large portion of the population. And I just think as a leader, you need to put the people ahead of your own feelings sometimes,” Beck said. “Governor Huckabee has no idea what it means to sacrifice. It’s service and sacrifice over your own person. Others above self—always—and he does not understand that.”
Last month, the Pentagon established a military-civilian working group to examine the implications of lifting the ban on transgender service members serving openly and how that would affect operational readiness.
Carter said the group will operate under the assumption that transgender troops can successfully integrate into the military ranks without trepidation.
The six-month study will focus on how hormones affect transgender service members while serving in a war zone, uniform and housing changes, and how medical care is financed.
Under new DoD rules, transgender-related conditions are no longer a precedent for administrative separation. Instead, individual military branches will have the authority to remove presently serving transgender personal for conditions that interfere with military assignments or performance of duty.
Additionally, transgender applicants are barred from entering military service and not granted waivers for transgender-related conditions—a bureaucratic clause that some critics find ironic. Current policy lists being transgender as a paraphilia, along with bestiality and pedophilia. Homosexuality also fell under this category until 1993 and later the Obama administration’s ending of the Defense Department’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Despite the policies still needing amendments, Beck believes the DoD is heading in the right direction—she herself is working with both senior military leadership and policymakers.
“I met with a lot of the Air Force leadership that are a part of this policy work, and they are really taking into consideration our needs as transgender persons and bouncing that off operational readiness and costs,” Beck said.
“The pundits fighting this who are really upset about [transgender service members] are the ones with the biggest issues in their heads, because they’re going straight to fetishes or sex and body parts,” she added. “But what they don’t understand is that this is about my identity, this is who I see when I look in the mirror. It has nothing to do with sex.”
Beck added that there was a misconception about surgery and the 15,500 service members in the military who are transgender.
“[In the military], out of the 15,500 people, maybe half those people are not going through surgery for transgender [reassignment],” Beck said. “You have to understand that we [transgender] are on a large scale from someone who gets all the surgery to someone who’s just transgender non-conforming, and it’s all more of an intellectual pursuit or a spiritual thing where they know, ‘This is who I am, this is my identity, and I don’t need to have physical changes in order to put me in that space of what my identity really is.’
“So when they say 15,500, it’s not going to be 15,500 people putting their hands in the air saying, ‘Yeah, I want surgery’ next week.”
The figure of those opting for surgery, said Beck, would be closer to 5,000 people, “where you have female to male and male to female.”
In February, Defense Department officials said that hormone treatment for gender reassignment had been approved for former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, who was convicted of espionage for sending classified documents to the website WikiLeaks.
The decision to allow Manning to undergo the transition to a woman was approved by Army Colonel Erica Nelson at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in September 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that Manning was at risk for self-castration and suicide stemming from her depression over not being fully allowed to transition into her gender identity, according to the Associated Press.
The Army’s decision sparked condemnation from some quarters.
Former Florida Republican congressman and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Allen West’s website said in response to the news, “You’ve heard of ‘white guilt?’ Perhaps it was ‘straight guilt’ that led the Army to take this unprecedented move.”
Manning is serving a 35-year sentence, which she is appealing.
Nevertheless, Beck agrees with the military’s decision to allow Manning to undergo gender reassignment.
“While you are in federal custody or any custody within any prison system, that institution has the responsibility to take care of that person,” Beck said. “So I 100 percent support it, because I think it’s the right thing to do. You have to separate the crime from that person’s human rights when you think about this issue.”
Moreover, Beck applauded Manning’s efforts in “forwarding the thought” for integration of transgender service members in the military, saying, “I think she did a great job…so if we are already [paying for Manning’s hormones and surgery] then we need to look at this entire policy and make sure we take care of people who are serving honorably on active duty. It’s about taking care of people, not hardware. People are more important than tanks and planes, it’s us…your most important asset.”
Still, Beck does not feel Huckabee’s views disqualify him from potentially serving as commander in chief. “You can’t base [his ability to be president] off of one thing,” she said. “It’s like when people look at me and say that I’m transgender and they don’t want me to be in the U.S. Congress based off that, it’s the same thing…it’s just not fair.”
“I would love to sit down with Huckabee and show him I am pretty normal. I might believe in some of the things he believes [in]. We have a lot of the same hopes and dreams for our nation. And if we disagree, that’s OK—disagreements make us better, but in the end, we respect each other in reaching the goal, [which] is prosperity,” Beck said.
“I want my children’s children to have a future and have a good country, which is what I grew up in,” Beck said. “I think we are leaving it worse right now because all we’re doing is fighting with each other.”